Childcare cuts threaten area's working poor

Statewide budget cuts threaten to leave as many as 150,000 Chicago area children without the daycare subsidies that allow their low-income parents to work, advocates say.

The cuts, which could go into effect next month, affect a broad swath of programs administered by the state Department of Human Services. But for the 80,000 Chicago area families who rely on daycare subsidies, the cuts could mean financial disaster.

"I think this budget is an absolutely obscene attack on families and young children," said Maria Whelan, president of Illinois Action for Children, the non-profit agency that processes child care assistance in Cook County.

"What are they going to do? Stop working or leave their children alone?"

The agency distributes payments to daycare providers on behalf of families who meet the program's income requirements. Approximately 50,000 families in Cook County apply for subsidies each month, Whelan said.

But under a dramatically pared-down budget approved by the Illinois General Assembly last month, the agency would lose half of its state funding, Whelan said. The agency's 2009 contract with the state provided $22 million for child care assistance in Cook County, according to spokesman Adam Summers. Whelan said the cuts would leave the agency unable to serve "more than half" of its current clients.

The prospect left both parents and daycare providers fearing for their jobs. Opponents of the cuts, some of whom wore t-shirts bearing the name of their daycare centers, turned out in front of the Thompson Center last week to protest. 

"We are furious, scared that we may lose families and jobs and (have to suffer) paycuts," said Ilian Mora, a director for the El Hogar del Nino daycare center in Pilsen, which cares for more than 300 children including its home-based centers.   

El Hogar interim Executive Director Denise Castillo Dell Isola said the cuts would mean closure for the center. "Basically all of our children receive child care funding and the budget cuts would mean that many of our families would not be eligible for services and our center would have to shut down."

Doug Schenkelberg, a poverty expert who works with the anti-poverty organization Heartland Alliance, says the subsidies are a "critical component" for moving families out of poverty.

"Without child care, getting into the workforce is impossible," he said.

Some providers held out hope of a last minute reprieve.

But Tom Wogan, legislative assistant to State Rep. Will Burns (D-26), described the situation in grim terms.

"The state is experiencing the next thing to the Great Depression," he said.  

Even before the threat of cuts, daycare assistance applicants say the program suffered from burdensome paperwork requirements and delays.

Liz Megrano, who owns LIz-Ney-Land Learning Center at 4610 South Pulaski Road, says she has waited for payment for up to two months while parents navigated the application process. The budget cuts, she says, will affect "numerous familes" at her center and may mean jobs losses for some of them.

"It's difficult now for parents to get approved for child care and now it's going to be harder," she says.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Illinois Action for Children's 2009 state contract for providing child care assistance in Cook County was $22 million. An earlier version included an incorrect figure.